Why has Italian football and Serie A declined in recent decades?
Brimming with talent in the 1980s, the height of footballing fashion in the ‘90s and regularly dominant in European competition during the 2000s, the current decade has seen Italian football drift way off the pace set by some of its continental rivals.
Juventus aside, its biggest clubs now struggle to compete in the latter stages of the Champions League and languish low down in the sport’s financial tables. While the likes of Van Basten, Maradona, Gascoigne and Ronaldo would once flock to the peninsular to ply their trade, the world’s top players choosing Italy as their destination is now a distant memory. Even the revered national team are, astonishingly, no longer a guaranteed fixture at the World Cup.
As with most historical trends, no attempt to put this demise down to one individual event or factor can get close to an accurate assessment. Instead, the truth lies in a series of circumstances as complex and baffling as the country’s bureaucratic mazes of which its national sport is but one of countless victims.
While the similarly struggling Spanish economy has had little bearing on the success of its elite clubs, the wider social and political context in which Italy’s footballing decline has taken place is important to recognise. Ever dogged by institutional corruption and widespread organised crime, the country was hit particularly hard by the global financial recession of the last decade with a huge national debt and soaring youth unemployment among the most crippling effects. The result has been termed as an ‘exodus of the brains’ – mass emigration of the country’s young, university educated citizens to more promising European job markets, with London their most popular destination.
Relevantly, it’s a movement mirrored by that of Italian football’s brightest minds in the form of coaches like Antonio Conte, Claudio Ranieri, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini who, among many others, have at some point been lured by the vastly superior wages and spending power offered by English clubs. These tactical exports are a source of pride for the country’s sports pages which regularly brag of their nation’s representation on the benches of the world’s biggest clubs, but amount to a drain on the managerial talent on show in the domestic league. More pointedly, their departures demonstrate the waning appeal of a position in charge of Italian football’s best teams in comparison with the riches on offer overseas.
The Calciopoli scandal of 2006, in which Juventus were found to be the most guilty of five Italian clubs involved in illegally influencing the selection of referees, is often pointed to as a turning point at which Serie A’s decline began. The damage it caused was indeed extremely serious, and not just because the quality of the league diminished. More detrimental than the brief absence of Juve from the division and Milan from the Scudetto race was the poisonous shadow of corruption the affair cast over the Italian game. For many foreign observers, Calciopoli and the more recent Calcio Scomesse betting scandal of 2011-12 has rendered Italian football synonymous with corruption. With the impressive marketing success enjoyed by its rivals in the English Premier League, the toxification of Italian football’s brand that these scandals have inflicted has been an insidious process that Calcio could ill afford.
Indeed, it’s the weakness of Serie A and Italian football as a brand that’s been its major downfall, to which Calciopoli was, sadly, a mere contributing factor.
What the game has most palpably failed to do in recent years is sell itself in the way that other leagues have been able to. It’s been the capture of international viewers in Asia and the US which has driven the Premier League’s assent as the go-to destination for the world’s greatest players and managers. Serie A’s heyday, conversely, was built upon huge injections of cash by free spending owners like Inter’s petroleum magnate Massimo Moratti and Milan’s disgraced politician Silvio Berlosconi, who poured millions into making their clubs European powerhouses without sound business structures to ensure they would continue making money.
Fast forward to 2011 and the introduction of Financial Fair Play regulations ensured that these clubs could no longer spend lavishly without consideration of the losses they were making. Since then, a vicious circle has emerged in which Italian sides can’t afford the wages and transfer fees necessary to attract the best talent, leading to broadcasters less willing to offer the league big sums for coverage and their ability to compete with foreign rivals in the transfer market weakening ever more.
Further detracting both from the global appeal of Serie A and its clubs’ ability to generate profit is the state of the stadia in which it is played. It’s here where the contrast with the Premier League is most stark, as low attendances outside of the season’s very biggest fixtures creates a spectacle unappealing to the eye of global viewers used to watching games intensified by the roar of packed terraces. While a live top-flight match is a unique and highly-recommended spectacle for any football fan visiting the country, the reasons for seasoned Italian supporters to stay at home are clear: the country’s crumbling stadia have largely not been renovated since Italia ’90, and while the English game was forced to react to its 1980s crowd violence issues by stamping down on hooliganism, the Ultrá culture prevalent in Italy fixes in place a worryingly official relationship between Calcio and violent and organised crime that drives families away.
What’s more, much of any gate receipt the stadiums do bring in is kept away from the clubs by the farcical ownership arrangements they have in place. The vast majority of top Italian teams do not own their own stadiums; instead, they’re rented from local authorities or organisations. The San Siro in Milan, for example, is rented to Inter and AC Milan at exorbitant rates while the Olympic Committee owns the Stadio Olympico in which Roma and Lazio play. Fully fleshed-out plans from both Roma and Milan to build their own grounds have seemed tantalisingly close to completion before getting lost in the notorious black hole of Italian planning permission bureaucracy.
Notably, only three Serie A clubs own their own stadiums; Sassuolo, Udinese and Juventus. It’s no great coincidence that one of these three clubs happens to be the side that has dominated in both revenue and on-field results over the course of this barren decade. The lack of competition that Juve’s domination has often resulted in, however, has acted as a further turn-off for the global viewers the league needs to attract, while the fact that the only team consistently representing the country in the Champions League knock-out stages is the one most closely tied to the aforementioned Calciopoli scandal is no good for the brand either.
While finding a solution to the stadium problem appears to be the best place to start, the range of problems facing Italian football presents a profound challenge to those seeking to return it to its former glory. No golden generation of players or big-money foreign takeover will be enough to turn Calcio around – instead, it’s unlikely to be until Italy itself sees meaningful organisational change that its national sport can awake from its slumber.